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Response to Review no. 56

I appreciated Alan O’Day’s review of The Crisis of Conservatism and I welcome this chance to engage with his positions. For the most part I found very little to quarrel with in Alan O’Day’s generous and helpfully serious appraisal of my book, but there are one or two points where I would take issue. Let me get a minor grievance out of the way first. Over the years a number of friends and colleagues have asked me why I use my initials rather than my name as my professional moniker. The answer is that people almost invariably mis-spell my first name. Even my publishers gave an inaccurate version of my name in the first catalogue in which The Crisis of Conservatism appeared, and other publishers, the Oxford University Calendar (!) and a host of individuals have produced inventive and imaginative but inaccurate versions. Alan O’Day is no exception – I am not Euan but Ewen.

But to more serious matters. One point is straightforward. Alan O’Day states that the Conservatives ‘expected to win a general election in 1915’. This is not the case. Conservative Central Office’s own discussion of their party’s position, and the great majority of the opinions expressed by the leadership, party apparatchiks and organizers in the constituencies were all very pessimistic about the Conservatives’ chances in a possible 1915 election. This was hardly surprising. First of all the Liberal government planned to abolish plural voting before the election was due and this would have hit the Conservatives hard. There had been 550.000 plural votes in the December 1910 election, which had probably split about 7:3 to the Conservatives and given them 17 to 21 seats. The loss of these votes and seats would have been a serious handicap in 1915. Equally important the Conservatives, as their leadership almost uniformly acknowledged, had failed to find a means of arousing popular opinion against the government. This last point brings me to what was in many respects Alan O’Day’s most important criticism of The Crisis of Conservatism, namely its handling of the Irish issue where he feels the book is ‘least assured’. I found this a somewhat strange assertion. O’Day states the following:

Law was not an ordinary Conservative figure, especially where Ireland was concerned, but a determined figure who committed the party to defend Ulster Protestants in a way that Balfour would have found inconceivable. Law and Balfour held quite different views of Ireland which deserve more careful attention.

Given that this is almost exactly what I argue in The Crisis of Conservatism I am a bit baffled.

The whole thrust of my argument is that ‘Unionism in Ireland [c.1906-14] tended to speak with an Ulster accent’ and that Law’s willingness to ‘Ulsterize’ the Irish Question caused problems for old-style Unionism with its (eroding) base in Southern Ireland. Had I not been concerned to save space I would perhaps have expanded on the biographical aspects of Law’s sympathy for Ulster (which I have been able to do in my New DNB article on Law), but the key thing was surely to chart the growing importance accorded to Ulster and the unease/criticism this aroused within the Conservative party. Here I think O’Day is mistaken when he states that Ireland brought out ‘Law’s undoubted qualities for leadership’. There is certainly no clear evidence, and arguably very little evidence at all, that Law’s ‘Ulsterization’ of the Irish Question was causing him or his party anything but trouble before the outbreak of the Great War. O’Day says that the Liberals were equally if not more divided over Ireland than the Conservatives, but the Liberals were an elected government exercizing legitimate authority and it was the Conservatives who were (much to the alarm of their party Chairman) in danger of being blamed for fomenting disobedience to the law and even civil strife. Thus whereas O’Day seems to think I overlooked the division between Northern and Southern Unionism The Crisis of Conservatism in fact places this division at the heart of its discussion of Ireland’s relevance to the Conservatives’ problems. .Likewise, whereas O’Day argues that Ireland was a Conservative trump card before 1914 I still find it hard to see any real evidence for this and, equally important, Conservatives at the time found such evidence similarly difficult to find.